Complex villains are irresistible on stage and screen. They can be so magnetic. Their restlessness and shadings of evil keep my brain’s neurons firing. I have always thought of the fictional King Richard the Third in that way; as magnetic and evil.
But after conversations with Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Literary Manager and Dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg and Matthew Rauch, who portrays the legendary King Richard III (1461–83) on the Harman Hall stage, I learned that the STC production of Richard the Third aims not to depict the staged life of a clichéd villain from a faraway time that we audiences can easily and lustily boo. Shakespeare Theatre Company has something else in mind for its Richard the Third.
As painted by The Bard, Richard is a man and then a King who murders or causes others to murder. A man who uses women and cares not a fig beyond what using a woman can bring to him on his way to the top of the world. Yet in STC’s production, directed and adapted by David Muse, it will not be easy for audiences to feel so superior, clucking disapproval toward a character with such a radically unpleasant way of life.
My takeaway from conversations with Rauch and Lichtenberg: STC will explore knotty psychological dimensions in its Richard The Third. It is expected to be far more than simply the story of a main character “read” as ill-shaped and called a “poisonous hunch-backed toad.”
STC audiences may well wrestle with thorny issues such as complicity in the rise to power of the ambitious bad boy King Richard. For rising to the pinnacle of power requires the help, if not approval, of others. Even as Richard is motivated to say about himself, “I am determined to prove a villain,” he must have underlings to arrogantly manipulate and out-act to stay at the top.
From conversations with Lichtenberg and Rauch, I became open to this: the Richard the Third I thought I knew from previous sightings might be best left behind before I enter the STC performance. Why? To have fresh eyes. To be open to previously unnoticed motivations of the King and his retinue.
As Rauch had me conjure, what does Richard see of himself when he looks into the mirror every morning? Is it a fun-house mirror, all rubbery and ugly, or a mirror that provides truths only Richard can see?
With wondrous animation, Rauch then had me “see” what it might look like when an ambitious man with no scruples stops at nothing to gain power. More so, with Rauch’s imagination, I began to wonder why does someone at the top still continue to ask for more outlandish things? Is it because no one has ever said “no” before? Is it just too irresistible to continue to ask for more, to bend the world? What does it take to finally overstep so that a community or a nation catches on to a leader’s vanity?
And then came this image as my conversation with Rauch was nearing its end. What does it look like when a man who lives with a brace is without that brace? I can hardly wait to see it on the Harman Hall stage when fully staged.
Long ago I was taught that in reviewing a play that I had seen before, it is best to walk into the theater and pretend I had never seen it before. That remains my mantra: be in the moment. I look forward to seeing Richard the Third, a play that seems so right for our current times. A play to challenge. A play that speaks to resistance in the face of poisonous behavior by a powerful person and the State; by those obsessed with winning at all costs. “Apres moi, le deluge.”
Beyond theatergoers, I can only imagine that those of us who have worked in the political realm will find much to chat about after the show. After all, even good intentions and good ends might be accomplished with manipulation by less than pure hands. Do let me know what you think, please.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Richard the Third plays through March 10, 2019, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122, or go online.